Cream of tartar is one of those ingredients that many of us don’t really understand. It is called cream but it is actually a powder; hence the confusion. And yet, there it is, appearing in numerous amazing recipes. So, what is cream of tartar? What does it do? Do you really need to have it in your pantry?
Whether added to whipped egg whites to stabilize them, or to soften your snickerdoodle cookies, just a touch of this magical ingredient will make a great difference. Keep on reading to find out how to use it in recipes, but also around the house!
What is Cream of Tartar?
As we’ve already mentioned, cream of tartar is not creamy. This dry, powdery, acidic substance, also known by the longer and more complicated names potassium bitartrate or potassium hydrogen tartrate, is a by-product of the process of making wine.
To be more precise, it is found as a crystallized precipitate in wine barrels after the grape juice has been fermented. These crystals can also be formed in fresh grape juice that has been chilled or left to stand for some time. The sediment is then filtered and purified to produce the powdery white substance that we use in cooking and baking.
What is Cream of Tartar Used For?
Cream of tartar has various different uses in recipes.
#1 Leavening agent
Most commonly, cream of tartar is combined with baking soda to serve as a leavening agent. These two ingredients produce carbon dioxide gas, which is the same gas produced by yeast. The combination of cream of tartar and baking soda allows you to prepare fluffy and puffy baked goods without the use of yeast.
Cream of tartar can also serve as a baking powder substitute. Just mix 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar with 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to substitute one teaspoon of baking powder.
#2 Stabilizing egg whites
Adding a 1/8 teaspoon for each egg white during whipping will boost the volume by enhancing the formation of air bubbles and preventing them from flattening. This is especially important when making treats like meringue pies, cookies, and cakes that look like soft pillows and simply melt in the mouth.
Cream of tartar also increases the eggs’ tolerance to high temperatures, making sure your meringue maintains high and well-defined peaks even after baking in the oven.
#3 Stabilizing whipped cream
Potassium bitartrate performs a very similar function when used in whipped cream. Whipped cream is produced by incorporating air bubbles by fat molecules. Cream of tartar makes the mixture foamier by boosting the strength of air bubbles. It also makes the mixture creamier, whiter, and brighter.
#4 Preventing the formation of sugar crystals
Contrary to the case with egg whites, where the cream of tartar acts as a booster, when it comes to sugar it serves as an inhibitor. Sugar has a natural tendency to form crystals by re-bonding, so adding a pinch of potassium bitartrate in syrups, icings, frostings, or boiling sugar will prevent the formation of those dreaded crystals.
#5 Anticaking agent
Potassium bitartrate is often used as an additive placed in powdered or granulated materials to prevent the formation of lumps. i.e. caking. You can add it to confectionaries and various sweet treats, but also to table salt, flours, sugar, or dried milk.
#6 Thickening agent
A small amount of cream of tartar can be added to various liquids like soups, sauces, or puddings, to increase their viscosity and make them thicker without affecting the other properties or altering the taste.
#7 Reducing color loss of boiled vegetables
Adding just a 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar into the water where your vegetables are cooking will reduce the degree of discoloration. The veggies will keep their bright and fresh color and will look much more attractive when served on the table.
What Are Cream of Tartar Substitutes?
The above-mentioned characteristics make cream of tartar one of the essential ingredients in the kitchen. So, what if you run out of this precious additive? There are two simple solutions. It should be noted, however, that no substitute gives quite the same effects. They will produce similar results, but the final product might be a bit different in appearance, moistness, and texture.
#1 Lemon juice or vinegar
If you have run out of cream of tartar, combine baking soda with any acidic ingredient. The most used options are lemon juice and vinegar, but you can also opt for buttermilk, yogurt, kefir, sour milk, or white wine.
Replace one teaspoon of cream of tartar with two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar mixed with ½ teaspoon of baking soda or, when whipping egg whites, use ½ teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar for each egg white.
Lemon juice is the best for fruit-based meringues, especially the ones based on lemon, whereas the rest of the above-mentioned acidic ingredients can be used in other recipes that call for whipped egg whites.
Note: if the recipe already calls for one of the above-listed acids, they will activate the baking soda so there is no need to add more.
#2 Baking powder
Normally, cream of tartar is used together with baking soda in baked goods and recipes that need leavening. When combined, these two ingredients act like baking soda with a doubled effect. So, when you don’t have cream of tartar, you should also omit the baking soda. Replace both of them with baking powder. Add a teaspoon of baking powder to replace one teaspoon of cream and tartar + baking soda (to be more precise 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar).
In case you use baking powder, make sure it is fresh. It is best that it is no more than six months old, otherwise, it will not have the desired effect. If you are not sure, check if your baking powder is fresh enough.
Place a teaspoon of baking powder in hot water. Baking powder’s action is triggered when in contact with wet ingredients and under the influence of high temperatures. So, if you notice a fizzy and bubbly reaction, your baking powder is good to go.
Omitting Cream of Tartar from the Recipe
Many cooks avoid substituting potassium bitartrate in recipes, especially in treats that need leavening, claiming that acidic ingredients alter the flavor and taste of the dish. According to them, leaving this ingredient out entirely is a better solution.
It is a fact that one can cook without cream of tartar in most cases, even though it will be slightly more difficult to achieve the same final product perfection. For instance, you can beat egg whites without it. They will be fine as long as you make sure they are well beaten. Same counts for whipped cream. However, this does not apply to baked goods. They must have a leavening agent, otherwise, they will turn out flat and rubbery.
Cream of Tartar’s Shelf-life
Unlike baking soda, potassium bitartrate does not go bad. Make sure it is placed in an air-tight container and stored in a cool and dry spot. However, if you discover a container in the pantry that looks pretty old, open and smell it. If the content is white and powdery and has a slightly acidic smell, feel free to add it to your recipes.
The Best Recipes Made with Cream of Tartar
How to make a smooth, fluffy meringue with perfectly stiff tops that will make your eyes pop? We have the answer! This airy topping requires only three simple ingredients – 4 eggs, ¼ cup of sugar, and ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar – but it can simply turn even the plainest sweet treat into an amazing dessert. Read the tips and tricks bellow to prepare unforgettable creations like pies, puddings, cakes, cookies and more!
- Separate the egg whites from the yolks while they are still cold, i.e. immediately after you take them out of the fridge;
- Let the egg whites come to a room temperature to be sure that they will be perfectly whipped to form a super-fluffy mass;
- Whip the whites until smooth, but make sure not to overwhip;
- Add the cream of tartar to boost the volume and keep the peaks firm. Add the sugar at the end;
- Bake the meringue at 350 degrees F, about 4’’ under the heat. Bake until the peaks are golden brown, for about 10 minutes.
The base of this multiple-use topping is made with a cup of heavy whipping cream, two tablespoons of powdered sugar, one teaspoon of vanilla extract, and just a pinch of cream of tartar. Sure, everyone knows how to whip a cream, but these tricks will help you make the ultimate whipped cream to complement your cakes, pancakes, cupcakes, muffins, trifles, parfaits…
- The more fat your whipping cream contains, the better the final result will be;
- Instead of powdered sugar, you can use granulated sugar (although the former dissolves much easier), or other sweeteners. Pure maple syrup is a great option. It is not only much healthier than sugar, but it also contributes extra flavor;
- Vanilla can be used in the form of an extract, but vanilla bean paste is even better because it contributes a stronger vanilla flavor. It is a bit more expensive, but you’ll use only small amounts due to its highly-concentrated vanilla flavor. It also contains tiny black specks that will make your whipped cream less than boring. The third option is vanilla essential oil. This oil is quite strong and concentrated, so add only a drop or two;
- Whipped cream is best whipped when using cold kitchenware elements, so place your bowls and whiskers or mixer beaters in a fridge for a few minutes before you start preparing the recipe. This trick will make your cream whip faster;
- Beat the whipping cream on high speed until thick, then slowly add the powdered sugar, cream of tartar, and vanilla;
- Mix until the peaks are stiff. To check if it is done, turn the whisker/beater upside down. The cream should not fall down. Be sure not to overmix, though. If you go too far, you’ll end up with a grainy butter instead of cream;
- Add your favorite flavoring like chocolate, peanut butter, lemon, coffee if desired;
- Store in a sealed container for up to one day, or better yet, consume immediately.
One of the most delicious recipes that make use of cream of tartar is the one for snickerdoodle cookies. These classic and simple sugar cookies should be soft and buttery on the inside, but crispy on the outside. To achieve this and to make your cookies perfectly leavened and light, you simply must use cream of tartar (two teaspoons). Otherwise, the snickerdoodles might be dense. Read on for more tricks.
- Use softened butter to facilitate the process of creaming, which will result in a more tender interior. Mix the butter and sugar for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy.
- Chill the dough. Once you have mixed all the ingredients and the dough is ready, cover it and place in the fridge for at least one hour. It will be even better if you leave it there overnight. This trick is to make the dough easier to handle, but also makes the cookies slightly browner and a bit chewier. This will also prevent them from becoming crispy and too thin. At first, the dough will be rather difficult to work with, but will soon loosen up from the warmth of your hands. While the dough is chilling, you can prepare the cinnamon sugar topping.
- Underbake the cookies just a bit. If you go too far, they will be too dry and crispy, so to keep them soft, about 10 minutes should suffice. When the edges are light golden brown and firm, take them out of the oven immediately.
- Wait for the snickerdoodles to cool completely before removing them to avoid sticking on the parchment paper or baking sheet.
Other Uses of Cream of Tartar in the Home
Besides its amazing culinary applications, this magical ingredient has many other applications around the house. Unlike standard cleaning products, it contains no toxins or chemicals. In addition, it is very cheap and very easy to use.
For instance, when mixed with some lemon juice, this white powder can be used to remove stains from clothes or clean copper items.
Combine it with white vinegar to clean your burner pans quickly and easily. Use this mixture to remove mildew and mold in your toilet, clean the oven, or polish the porcelain.
When combined with water, potassium bicarbonate can be used to clean the steel appliances and remove scratches from them. This mix can also clean your coffee pot thoroughly and remove stains from mugs.
Cream of tartar is an amazing ingredient indeed!